Detecting Illicit Nuclear Materials Takes Layered Approach

Non-points of entry along the U.S. border, small private planes and yachts and advanced technology are among the next targets of focus for Domestic Nuclear Detection Office cargo screening efforts.

by / November 5, 2008

The nuclear threat is something we really have to pay attention to, said Mike Johnson, mission area manager for the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Of all the types of terrorist attacks that could involve nuclear material, the most likely is a 'dirty bomb' that is composed of a source of radiation surrounded by a conventional explosive such as TNT.

Furthermore, Johnson said, the approach to preventing such an attack has to be layered. Consequently, the DNDO works on much of its mission abroad, because protecting a city from a nuclear attack, such as a dirty bomb, requires working outside cities' borders, Johnson said.

The DNDO is focused on detecting illicit nuclear material and preventing it from entering the United States. As part of those efforts, the DNDO is currently working on developing a nuclear materials detection architecture. Part of DNDO's mission is to test, recommend and buy detection equipment for government agencies such as Customs and Border Patrol as well as the Coast Guard.

The agency is pretty satisfied with the current state of cargo security at points of entry along the nation's borders, Johnson told an audience of homeland security practitioners and technology providers at the 10th annual Technologies for Critical Incident Preparedness in Chicago last week. The DNDO's next focus will be to improve cargo screening of small private planes and yachts coming into the United States through non-points of entry.

As smuggling remains a major way illicit cargo enters the country, the DNDO is going to work on improving the efficiency and accuracy of cargo screening. One project being developed is a 45-second cargo screener that will scan containers for nuclear, chemical, biological agents as well as conventional explosives and people being smuggled across the country. This will make it easier to achieve the DNDO's goal of scanning 100 percent of cargo without interrupting commerce. Johnson said the DNDO would make recommendations to states about the technology they should buy. The next generation of nuclear and radiological materials detection technology will let screeners know where the material is and what specific type of material it is.

Noting that the current generation of nuclear scientists that ushered in the Atomic Age is dying, Johnson said it is time for America to start developing the next generation of scientists to protect the country against nuclear and radiological threats.